Laboratory Study of Leaders Shows Surprising Result: As Leadership Responsibility Increases, Stress Declines

September 24, 2012
by Doug Gavel

CAMBRIDGE—A unique laboratory study shows that leaders with more leadership responsibility in fact experience lower stress levels (as measured by stress hormone (i.e., cortisol) levels) than peers who have less responsibility.
The results of the study appears in this week’s Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The research team, led by Jennifer Lerner, professor of public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School, engaged senior leaders from the public and private sectors who volunteered to serve as participants in a wide-ranging investigation on leadership and stress—a first of its kind. The leaders included military officers, government officials, nonprofit administrators, and business leaders from the United States and around the world.
“There is a strong theme in the literature on leadership that the higher people rise in leadership positions, the more stress they have to manage,” Lerner observes. “But when we studied people who actually hold positions of leadership, we found that they tended to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared to non-leaders.”
The authors found that a parallel outcome measure--self-reported anxiety--showed the same pattern, thus indicating the robustness of the phenomenon.
A second study conducted by the team examined differences in rank and authority within a group of leaders, and confirmed that even among leaders, those with higher levels of leadership responsibility (as measured by number of subordinates) experienced lower stress and cortisol levels than those with less responsibility. Dr. Gary Sherman of Harvard, a coauthor of the paper, notes, “Not only are leaders less stressed than non-leaders, but more powerful, higher-ranking leaders are less stressed than less powerful, lower-ranking leaders.”
The authors found that feelings of control provided a key to explaining this finding.

“Our evidence indicates that higher-ranking leaders have a greater sense of control in their lives,” Lerner says. “This helps explain why they had lower cortisol and less anxiety than lower-ranking leaders. Of course, it’s quite possible that the reverse causal direction occurs as well—people may rise to positions of leadership because they have a skill for insulating themselves from the stresses that go with increased responsibility.”
“We aren’t talking about fleeting moods,” adds Lerner. “Cortisol is an important biological variable related to morbidity and mortality. Chronically elevated cortisol levels impair immune functioning and, as a result, contribute to major diseases and shorter life span.”
The research team also included Professors James Gross of Stanford and Christopher Oveis of the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego, and Harvard Business School Associate Professor Amy Cuddy, postdoctoral fellow Dr. Gary Sherman, and doctoral students Julia Jooa Lee and Jonathan Renshon.

Photograph of Professor Jennifer Lerner

Jennifer Lerner, professor of public policy and management

“There is a strong theme in the literature on leadership that the higher people rise in leadership positions, the more stress they have to manage,” Lerner observes. “But when we studied people who actually hold positions of leadership, we found that they tended to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared to non-leaders.”

 


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